Seeing Media Bias Everywhere Is Bad for Democracy – and Peace

Media hear and see no evelThere is a well-known study conducted in 1985 that ran a perfectly simple clean little experiment. One group favorable toward Israel and another group supportive of the Arabs were exposed to identical news stories about the violence in Lebanon in 1982. Even though both groups saw the same story, and all conditions of the experiment were the same, each believed the coverage was distorted and biased with respect to their own side; that is, they thought the media was hostile to their side. This is termed “the hostile media effect” and it very simply refers to the tendency to prefer your own group (either pro-Israel or pro-Arab) and distort perceptions of an “out” group and thus believe that the media are hostile to your side but lenient and supportive of the other side.

Given the orgy of news coverage surrounding the war in Gaza, and the inevitable outcry about media bias, I thought I would clarify some distinctions and explain the social scientific foundation of media bias. More journalists and reporters work more diligently to present a balanced view of the conflict then the public gives them credit for. But the same journalists will tell you that their good efforts to be balanced are for naught and they are flooded with mail claiming bias regardless of what they do. This tells you that the bias probably comes from the consumer of the message rather than the producer.

The general tendency to see bias is common enough. One of the most well-established relationships is between message distortion and group identity. If you sort people into two groups (e.g. Israelis-Palestinians) this immediately sets into motion a series of processes that influence how messages are interpreted. And, these interpretations always favor one group or another including interpreting messages as biased against their own side. The results of the 1985 study referred to earlier have been replicated with numerous topics and events. We prefer to think of ourselves as treating people equally or respecting diversity of all sorts but the truth is we strongly identify with groups and define ourselves according to group membership.

From a rather straightforward evolutionary perspective, any exposure of your ingroup to negative information is perceived as a potential threat. This stimulates our sense of self protection, which takes precedence over other cognitive processes, and causes us to question the nature and quality of the information. Claiming that the media are biased against us or the information is substandard allows group members to minimize the inconsistency between their group favorability and information inconsistent with maintaining their ingroup status.

Moreover, the more one intensely identifies with their group – such as a religious group or ethnic identity – the more individuals feel potential threat and the more intense is the relationship between group identity and sensitivity to information threats. These relationships are further intensified when group members consider their group to be particularly threatened or vulnerable. If you ask a strong supporter of Israel or a Palestinian whether or not they feel their group is vulnerable, or threatened, or disrespected they will certainly answer in the affirmative and consequently are more responsive than most to information threats.

There are of course numerous consequences to the distortion of perceptions and information resulting from group identity – sometimes deadly consequences – but the threat to democracy is a problem that receives less attention than psychological ones. There are three of them: one, the quality of information failure. Information is discounted or judged negatively sometimes when it should not be. It becomes difficult to find common information acceptable to both sides which is necessary for conflict resolution. Secondly, group identity distortions result in political polarization. The two sides of an issue see themselves as more extreme than they might actually be and retreat to more extreme positions which makes it even more difficult to manage problems. And third, the sense of being threatened or the recipient of hostile media attention creates conditions that justify more extreme or even violent behavior. The group considers its existence to be in jeopardy and this justifies more extreme behavior in the interest of “protecting themselves.” It is analogous to increasing constraints on civil rights in the face of terrorist activity.

How do we moderate group identity affects? We will pay some attention to that issue next week.

 

 

 

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Posted on August 25, 2014, in Democracy, Media and politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Seeing Media Bias Everywhere Is Bad for Democracy – and Peace.

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